Madison is a familiar soul

Published 12:01 am Sunday, May 8, 2011

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT Robert Madison, who will be honored for 50 years of service as caretaker at the Natchez City Cemetery, uses a leaf blower Wednesday to clean a grave site.

NATCHEZ — Robert Madison’s feet have tread every square foot of the Natchez City Cemetery in his 50 years of serving as cemetery caretaker.

Madison was 19 or 20 years old when he started working at the cemetery in 1961, and doesn’t foresee a change anytime soon.

“I think I’ll stay with it a while longer,” Madison said. “I love to work and I like it out here in the cemetery. There is always something to do.”

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Madison said he has dug thousands of graves in his 50 years. He also clears the paths, trims bushes, mows grass, installs and cleans gravestones and cares for the flowers.

Madison operates out of the cemetery barn. Madison said he has dug thousands of graves in his 50 years of employment at the cemetery.

“I enjoy trimming flowers and working on the rose bushes,” Madison said. “I can be quiet and think.”

Cemetery Director Danny Brown said Madison is his go-to source for any information about the cemetery.

“Robert ‘Maypop’ Madison is a walking encyclopedia, oozing with wisdom about the cemetery,” Brown said. “Any questions that I may have about the cemetery, some of these old lots, who’s buried where, that’s who I go to. He just knows the cemetery like the back of his hand.”

Brown said Madison can often recount how the buried died and to whom they are related.

“He’s grown with that cemetery,” Brown said. “The cemetery used to have less acreage but over the years we opened more and more flats. So he actually grew with cemetery to an extent.”

Brown said Madison would give anyone the shirt off his back.

“We could hardly make it without it him,” Brown said. “He is extremely valuable to the cemetery. And not too many people can say that they’ve been at one job for 50 years.”

Madison said he respects the dead by making it his mission to keep flowers on graves and maintaining the general appearance of the cemetery.

“When it looks nice, I take pride in it,” Madison said.

Madison said his favorite spot in the cemetery is Jewish Hill, where he can overlook the Mississippi River.

“There is no way I’d ever change jobs,” Madison said. “When you like your job as much as I do, you would never change.”

Even bad days are bearable at the cemetery, he said.

Madison said once he and his crew had to dig a grave through a layer of ice during a winter storm, and another time, bury someone in a hurricane.

“We sure got wet that day,” Madison said.

Madison has also had brushes with the supernatural in the cemetery.

Madison prunes trees around the cemetery.

“One day I came to the barn very early in the morning, before the sun was up,” Madison said. “This road was gravel then, and I heard walking. I figured it was one of the men coming to work early too. I heard the footsteps come around the corner to the door, and I waited and waited for someone to walk in. Finally I looked outside, and no one was there.

“I was scared,” Madison said.

He said another time he saw a smoke-like vapor on Catholic Hill, like someone was burning a small fire.

“When I walked over there to see what was going on, the smoke disappeared,” Madison said.

Those unexplainable instances did not cause Madison to look for alternative employment. More than anything, Madison said he feels fortunate to work at a place that is so beautiful, with so much history.

Brown said a plaque honoring Madison and a monetary gift will be presented to him by the Natchez City Cemetery Association on May 12 in honor of his 50 years of service to the cemetery and the City of Natchez.